The low temperature in West Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday was 78 degrees. The low in Vermillion, South Dakota was 58.
In December, the difference will be more drastic.
“South Dakota, that word is kind of overwhelming for most people,” said Phil Ockinga, football recruiting coordinator for the University of South Dakota. “When you go down south and say that, they think you’re in Canada. You have to explain it’s not as far north as they think.”
Despite 77,184 square miles of sprawl, South Dakota has the fifth-smallest state population in the U.S. But kids like Kai Henry, a Coyote receiver from Miami, still chase football dreams to the Mount Rushmore State. They watch the Georgia States of the world upset Tennessee at Neyland Stadium and wonder if that could be them.
“They want to play in those games. I think it’s a big sell. I sell it. ‘Hey, we play Oklahoma,’” Ockinga said. “Sometimes it’s tough for the kids to understand what FCS football is. But you know if they play in Oklahoma, they must be good.”
Fourth-ranked Oklahoma is favored by 39.5 points against South Dakota in Saturday’s game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Sooners (1-0) scored 60 points. The Coyotes (0-1) might be lucky to score 14.
OU has played just four FCS teams since 1952 with reportedly two more scheduled in the foreseeable future, Missouri State in 2020 and Western Carolina in 2021. OU will pay South Dakota $575,000 for this weekend’s game, according to records provided to The Transcript.
While it will cost the Sooners to earn an expected lopsided victory, the Coyotes will play at Owen Field with house money. People don’t often associate South Dakota with football, but the state has its own unique passion and tradition for it.
It’s where George Lynn Cross, the longest-tenured University of Oklahoma president, grew up and played football collegiately at South Dakota State. Cross spanned enough eras at OU that he shook hands with Bennie Owen, hired Bud Wilkinson and, later, by hiring Jim Mackenzie also brought Barry Switzer into the fold.
Cross famously told legislators who were once asking why OU needed funding: “I would like to build a university which the football team could be proud of.”
Growing up, he likely knew how it felt to be pummeled into a frigid gridiron. Domes eventually made football there more tolerable. In 1979, the Coyotes’ DakotaDome began providing shelter from the conditions; it’s now available to area high school teams.
It was built with a lot of Joe Robbie’s money. Robbie, a USD grad who co-founded the Miami Dolphins, had his name on the Dolphins’ stadium until 1996 — today it’s known better as Hard Rock Stadium, which staged OU’s loss to Alabama in last season’s Orange Bowl.
Robbie used to fly USD coaches to Florida in the 1970s for recruiting trips, building a valuable pipeline to the university that continues today. Seventeen Floridians will be on Saturday’s roster.
Ockinga says the school has good retention rates of those players, who make their home in Vermillion. The city was founded in the state’s southeast corner, a tri-state area where northwest Iowa and northeast Nebraska are within arm’s reach. The Missouri River separates all of them, and southwest Minnesota isn’t far away.
Spirit Mound, just north of the city, is the only known place where explorers Lewis and Clark were said to have actually set foot during their historic journey from 1804-06.
Traveling there for a football career is something like an expedition. But it can be worth it. Like in 2010, when the Coyotes upset Minnesota 41-38 in Minneapolis. Last season, they nearly upset Kansas State in Manhattan. Then there was the 24-21 victory over FCS power North Dakota State on a last-second field goal at the Fargo Dome in 2015.
“It was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever been a part of. You don’t just go into the Fargo Dome and beat them,” said Gary Culver, the South Dakota radio color analyst. He came to the university from nearby Sioux City, Iowa, as a freshman in 1972 and never left town again, taking the Vermillion High School head coaching job for 36 years, going 201-155.
Big football goals are often realized in small places. OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch played at Division III Mount Union and worked his way up from there. One of his stops was Wyoming, not too different from South Dakota with its remote outpost and weather.
“There’s a place for everybody,” Grinch said. “I think if you want to go find it, go find what works for you. But you better want to play to leave your home and your family to do it. And I like guys who take gambles on themselves. That’s what that speaks to.”
Sometimes, you just never know. Ockinga had friends who coached at Appalachian State when the Mountaineers won at fifth-ranked Michigan in 2007, one of the most stunning upsets in college football history. Lacking an indoor facility, they couldn’t practice the week before due to extensive rain.
Grinch was on the opposite side of the table once. In 2016, Washington State was stunned 45-42 by Eastern Washington of the FCS. That same season, North Dakota State upset 13th-ranked Iowa.
Those games provide great entertainment, Grinch and OU coach Lincoln Riley agreed. The Sooners just don’t want it happening to them.
“With the advent of the spread offense,” Grinch said, “The ‘big boy’ beating up the ‘little brother’ type stuff doesn’t happen as much. Because if you can spread out and make plays in space, you’ve got a chance to beat anybody.”
South Dakota (0-1) at No. 4 Oklahoma (1-0)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium
Line: OU (-39.5)
TV: PPV (Cox HD 505; AT&T U-verse 1636 HD/636 SD; DIRECTV TBD)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7